Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of South and Central America

Gangs in Central America

Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of South and Central America

Gangs in Central America

Article excerpt

Introduction

In recent years, analysts and U.S. officials have expressed ongoing concerns about the increasing rates of violent crimes committed by drug traffickers, organized criminal groups, and gangs in Central America.125 U.S. concerns about gangs have accelerated as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), a particularly violent group with ties to Central America, has increased its presence and illicit activities in the United States.126 Policy-makers in countries throughout the region, including in the United States, are struggling to find the right mix of suppressive and preventive policies to confront the gang problem. Most agree that a comprehensive, regional approach to gangs is necessary to prevent further escalation of the problem.

Congress has maintained an interest in crime and gang violence in Central America, and in the related activities of Central American gangs in the United States.127 Congress has considered what level of U.S. assistance is most appropriate to help Central American countries combat gang activity and what types of programs are most effective in that effort. Members of Congress have also taken an interest in the effects of U.S. deportations of individuals with criminal records to Central America on the gang problem, as well as the evolving relationship between Mexican drug trafficking organizations and the gangs. Congress has funded anti-gang efforts in Central America through global funds appropriated to the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE). In June 2008, Congress increased country and regional anti-gang assistance by approving initial funding for the Mérida Initiative, an anti-crime and counterdrug foreign aid package for Mexico and Central America.128

The 111th Congress appropriated a second tranche of Mérida funding for Central America in the FY2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act (P.L. 111-8), enacted in March 2009, and is currently considering how much assistance to provide for the region for FY20 10. Congress is likely to exercise oversight over the implementation of the Mérida Initiative, with a particular interest in how agencies are coordinating their various anti-gang efforts. Congress may also help influence the design of whatever follow-on program is proposed for the region in President Obama's FY2011 budget request.

This report describes the gang problem in Central America, discusses country and regional approaches to deal with the gangs, and analyzes U.S. policy with respect to gangs in Central America. It concludes with a discussion of policy issues that Members of Congress may consider as they continue to address aspects of U.S. international anti-gang efforts.

Background on Violent Crime in Central America

Latin America has among the highest homicide rates in the world, and in recent years homicide rates in several Central American countries have significantly exceeded the regional average (see Table 1). According to figures cited in a recent U.N. Development Program (UNDP) report, in 2005, Latin America's average homicide rate stood at roughly 25 homicides per 100,000 people, almost three times the world average of 9 homicides per 100,000 people.129 That same year, average homicide rates per 100,000 people in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras reached approximately 62, 44, and 37, respectively. Whereas homicide rates in Colombia, historically the most violent country in Latin America, have fallen in the past few years, homicide rates have remained at elevated levels in El Salvador, Guatemala, and, to a lesser extent, Belize. Homicide rates have increased significantly in Honduras. By 2008, the estimated murder rate per 100,000 people stood at roughly 32 in Belize, 52 in El Salvador, 48 in Guatemala, and 58 in Honduras. In Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama, the corresponding figures were 11, 13, and 11, respectively.130

Central America-particularly the -northern triangle" countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras-exhibit many risk factors that have been linked to high violent crime rates. …

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